Crowded Kings Cross station in London

Government should not manage railways, review says

Rail commuters at King's Cross Station
The Government should not manage railways, Keith Williams says. Photo: William87.

Oversight of Britain’s railways should be in the hands of one individual or body which is independent of Government, according to the head of a major review.

Former British Airways chief executive Keith Williams, who is leading the Government-commissioned Rail Review, said the appointment of a “Fat Controller” type figure would be “key for regaining public trust”.

Mr Williams told the BBC the influence of the Department for Transport (DfT) should be restricted to budgets and overall policy rather than day-to-day operations.

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He added: “Someone needs to be accountable to the public.”

This suggests the possible return of a body similar to the Strategic Rail Authority, which existed from 2001 to 2005 and was tasked with raising standards through the awarding of franchises.

Shadow transport secretary Andy McDonald said: “Keith Williams misses the point. Continuing with private train operators subject to performance-related payments means sticking with a failed, unaccountable and disjointed railway.

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“Instead, we should bring the track and train together in a single company in public ownership but, critically, at arm’s length from Government and removed from Government interference and
micromanagement.”

The Rail Review was launched last September after a separate investigation into disruption following a timetable change in May 2018 suggested “nobody took charge”.

The Government said the review would be “the most significant since privatisation” and will consider all parts of the sector, including accountability, the franchising system and value for money for passengers and taxpayers.

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Findings will be presented in a white paper in autumn, while reform is said to be scheduled for 2020.

Punctuality across Britain sank to a 13-year low in 2018, with one in seven trains delayed by at least five minutes as a series of major issues plagued the system.

Speaking earlier this year, Mr Williams said the DfT has taken on roles “it never intended to perform”, such as specifying which trains stop at which stations.

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This will “have to change” if the railway is realigned to focus on passengers, he said, adding: “The levers to effect change do not come together coherently, and in too many instances only do so in the Department for Transport.

“A lesson we can learn from other countries is that some decisions are best taken by those closer to the detailed operations.”

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About the Author

Sam Hewitt

Let off some steam...